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My favorite recordings of 'Rite of Spring' (Updated)

Updated: May 28, 2020

It's no secret. Everyone who knows me personally knows how much I obsess over this work. I literally study the score everyday and find something I missed the previous hundred times I've looked at it. It's one of the pieces of music that one can listen to a million times and it'll never get old. It's definitely my favorite orchestral work of all time.

It's not only my favorite work of all time, but it's extremely important to music history. The great Leonard Bernstein is quoted as once saying, "That page is sixty years old, but it's never been topped for sophisticated handling of primitive rhythms...", and "...it's also got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms and whatever else you care to name."


The legendary opening bassoon solo

So why do I love it so much?

I have a personal connection with this piece, because it was among one of the first large orchestral works from the 20th century that I studied when I was getting started with composition. In my first private composition lesson, which was way back in 2010, my first assignment was to listen to Rite and note my observations about the music. Armed with the score and Pierre's Monteux's 1951 recording, I dove in. My first impressions of the score were not that flattering; even though I was 13 years old and had some exposure to contemporary music already, I didn't immediately catch onto the unique style. I also remember getting lost in the immensely complex score several times, especially in the Sacrificial Dance.


As of now (May 2020), I've seen the Rite of Spring performed live three times (2011, 2016 and 2020), the first two times by my local Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the third time by Orchestra Seattle and friend and mentor Will White. I've also been to two rehearsals of the DSO (2011 and 2017) with the same orchestra and conductor (Jaap van Zweden) and recently gotten the chance to act as assistant conductor for this piece (with Orchestra Seattle). Seeing it actually being performed led to a greater appreciation of this masterwork. The rehearsals gave me new insight into how a complicated piece was prepared by a top flight orchestra. In the second rehearsal I attended in 2017, the (now former) principal percussionist of the DSO was nice enough to let me sit among the percussion as they played. It was an experience my ears will never forget.

An image from a Dallas Symphony rehearsal of Rite of Spring. This was the last time those timpani were seen alive.

Some context to the music (or 'A not-so-complete' history of the Rite of Spring)

The thing that always strikes me about this piece is how well it's held up over the hundred years since it was composed. The fact is that this piece is over 100 years old is still very surprising to think about. Every time one listens to it, it sounds as fresh as if it were composed a week ago. So much about this piece is ahead of its time that's almost insane to think that one man wrote all of this in the span of a year.


It was third of a string of successful and innovative ballets created for the company Ballets Russes, after L'oiseau De Feu (The Firebird) (1910) and Petrushka (1911). The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) was composed in 1911-1912 and was based on a fleeting vision Stravinsky had of a young maiden dancing herself to death. This occurred as he was finishing Firebird in 1910.


Something that all of three of these ballets have in common is that they are based on Russian legends and folklore. This was probably the idea of the impresario of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, who also founded the company and commissioned the ballets (from Ravel, Debussy and Satie among others). Diaghilev entrusted the creation of the scenario of the Rite of Spring to Stravinsky and his friend Nicholas Roerich, who also did the costumes and stage design. Diaghilev also told Stravinsky to use as large of an orchestra as he wanted, as the Ballets Russes was forward looking and had a lot of funding at their disposal at the time.


The ballet was premiered on May 29, 1913, with the orchestra of the Ballets Russes (consisting of players hired out from the Paris Opera and freelancers) conducted by Pierre Monteux. According to Stravinsky, the orchestra had 52 rehearsals. This was and still is a rare luxury and almost never happens today.


This is one of the most infamous events in classical music due to a riot breaking out early in the performance of the Rite and escalating to the point of the police being called in. It's almost urban legend that the music itself was so different and new that it was for sure the culprit. However, it was the jarring and angular choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and strange set design by Roerich that provoked strong responses from the audience. It's also worth noting that the Rite of Spring was the on the second half of the program that night. On the first half was music by Chopin, Weber and Borodin, all with traditional ballet dance and costumes.


The Rite is scored for an immense orchestra of quintuple winds, 8 horns (with the 7th and 8th horns doubling Wagner tubas), 5 trumpets (full range from piccolo to bass), 3 trombones, 2 tubas and a heavy battery of 2 timpanists, bass drum, tam-tam, guiro, triangle, tambourine, cymbals and crotales.

The orchestration is innovative and contains new and novel compositional devices no other composer was using at the time, although the idea of 2 timpanists was pioneered in Hector Berlioz's 1830 Symphonie Fantastique. One also sees the beginning of the use of percussion instruments as important soloists; the bass drum solo from 'Dance of the Earth' and the timpani part from 'Danse Sacrale' appear on orchestral audition lists today.


Looking at his use of the orchestra in slow quiet sections, Stravinsky tends to use the winds in chamber context with individual instruments interacting with each other:

An example of chamber scoring in the Rite of Spring

Also, take the counterpoint, which is ingenious. At any given time in the score there are multiple rhythms, keys (bitonality) even tempi happening at the same time. The climax of the first part (procession of the sage) is the perfect example of this and also features the 100 person plus strong orchestra in its full power:

From 'procession of the sage', in which Stravinsky superimposes more than 10 different rhythms on top of each other

It's the revolutionary use of rhythm and orchestration that makes this score unique. It's almost strange to remember that this music was written to be danced to, and it's so rhythmically complex that it can be intimidating at first glance.

However, the beats are so carefully placed that one can literally feel the piece as they are listening to it. It does take a few listens to latch onto the rhythmic cells, however.

first page of the Danse Sacrale. Stravinsky himself said that this movement was the hardest to notate

The growing interest in recordings

Over time, I've become interested in the different interpretations of this piece. The recording history of the complete work spans 1929 (16 years after the premiere) to late last year and it continues to get numerous live performances and radio broadcasts, as it's now a part of the standard orchestral repertoire. It's very fascinating to listen to these recordings in chronological order, as one can notice several prominent things:

  • The steady increase in recording quality (from mono to stereo).

  • The raising of orchestral standards. You can hear the tightening of orchestra playing increase as the decades go by.

  • How orchestral musicians dealt with and felt complex rhythms in the early-mid 20th century versus today.

  • Lost rare styles of playing from certain recordings (take for example, Pierre Monteux's 1929 recording with the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris, an exclusively french orchestra. The first thing one will notice is the french bassoon, which has a sonority on par with a saxophone in addition to french oboes and thinner brass. Also note the not very heavy strings. This is most likely how the orchestra on opening night sounded.

  • The rise of youth orchestras playing this piece, beginning in the 1970s. It's interesting to think that the Rite, which was once considered unplayable by the best orchestras in the early 20th century, can now be performed almost flawlessly by kids and children

  • Changes in interpretation by one conductor. The Rite has been recorded multiple times by conductors like Monteux (1929, 1945, 1951, 1956), Stravinsky himself (1929, 1940, 1960), Karajan (1964, 1977), Dorati (1953, 1959, 1981), Bernstein (1958, 1972, 1982) Rattle (1977, 1987, 2012), Ozawa (1968, 1979), and Boulez (1963, 1969, 1991) among others. In these recordings, the changes in interpretation can range from exciting to boring, or vice versa. As conductor matures, so does their perception of a piece of music and one can hear that first hand in multiple recordings made over several years.

  • The sounds of the different orchestras, by nationality. Every orchestra is unique and has different playing styles. American orchestras usually sound more refined and are focused on putting the notes in the right place, while Russian orchestras play with extremely loud volume (usually from the brass) and with abandon. French orchestras are silky smooth in this piece (which sometimes doesn't fit, but usually does since the Rite was originally premiered by a French orchestra) and German orchestras have the heaviest sounding strings and percussion.

I've compared and contrasted an element of Rite in the past, in two Youtube videos which looks at how the famous 11 beats have been played and recorded over a long period of time.

In my journey to explore the recording history of the Rite, I've accumulated over 600 recordings from 1927 to the present. Some of them come from CDs, some from internet radio broadcasts, and some of the rare recordings were provided to me by dear friends. Some of them are out of print or extremely rare, and I had to really do intense research to find them. For example, I've sought out and digitally transferred several rare vinyl recordings.


I'd like to look at some of my personal favorites, by decade. I want to note that I'll be looking at orchestral recordings in specific. I say this because almost everything has been done with the Rite of Spring these days (including a jazz version and a well regarded midi recording). There is also the very popular original version for two pianos and arrangement for band (some of them surprisingly good and some of them terrible).


1920's - 1940's

I don't have an all time favorite recording from this time period, but it's fascinating to hear how orchestras struggled to play this work cleanly, which is not surprising considering the piece was not yet 20 years old and still looked at as 'cutting edge' at the time. Looking at Stravinsky's own recording from 1929 with the Walther Straram Concerts Orchestra and comparing that to his 1940 remake with the New York Philharmonic, one can see how quickly orchestras got used to rhythmic complexities of the score. Stravinsky wasn't really the best conductor of his own music, but his performances come out as authentic and powerful. Pierre Monteux's 1929 recording is of historic interest mostly because of Monteux being the one who premiered the ballet and this being the first full recording of the work. With the french orchestra, it's perhaps the closest we can get to how the orchestra sounded on that infamous opening night. The first american recording was made in 1930 by the trailblazing Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, who had previously attempted to record it in 1927 (they only recorded half of the first part). Also during this period, Pierre Monteux recorded it with the San Francisco Symphony in 1945 and Eduard van Beinum recorded it with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1946.

There also exists a recording from 1928 of rehearsals for the west coast premiere of this work, with Eugene Goossens conducting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. It's extremely fascinating to try to hear the orchestra figure out the unfamiliar rhythms, most of the time failing. (Goossens himself would later record it in the studio in 1958 with the London Symphony Orchestra).


1950's

Starting in the 1950's, several powerhouse recordings of Rite were released, giving a new generation new insight into a piece that was barely 30 years old. This same generation would've also been familiar with the Rite anyways, due to the popularity of the dinosaur sequence from 1940's Fantasia. Gradually, more and more conductors began to try their hands at tackling this work both in the concert hall and in the studio. Igor Markevitch, one of the all time foremost interpreters of this work (and of Stravinsky in general), first recorded it in 1951 in mono sound with the Philharmonia Orchestra and later re-recorded it in 1959 in stereo with the same orchestra. The 1959 recording is well regarded because of the virtuoso playing of the orchestra and the power of the interpretation.

The most famous recording from the 50's would be Leonard Bernstein's January 1958 account with the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein had just assumed the music directorship of the philharmonic at the time and made this stereo recording in the studio. He had previously performed it with the philharmonic on tour in 1951 and possibly first conducted it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the late 1940's.

With Bernstein's 1958 account, it was a new way of looking at the Rite. The brutality is present and the full power of the philharmonic at the time is unleashed. One could dive right into recording not knowing the story and catch on right away. Some 60 years after it was recorded, it continues to hold up beautifully. Legend has it that Stravinsky himself was impressed by this recording, and he was notoriously critical about recordings of his pieces, later heavily criticising the 1964 recording by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.

From the same time period, Ferenc Fricsay's 1954 document with the RIAS Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Ernest Ansermet's (who conducted the 1920 revival at the Ballets Russes) 1957 recording with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande may not have the strongest orchestral playing but contain strong interpretational ideas and are very fascinating to listen to.

Also from 1959 is a recording from René Leibowitz and the New Symphony Orchestra of London under the recording name, 'London Festival Orchestra'. René Leibowitz was a teacher of Pierre Boulez, so it's worth comparing to Boulez's recordings as they're very similar is style and scope.


1960's

By this point, recording quality had undergone a significant change, and stereo was becoming popular. In 1960, Stravinsky's final recording with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra was released incorporating the not very popular 1943 revision of the Sacrificial Dance. Stravinsky's skills as a conductor had improved immensely and he was able to navigate around his own score with more ease and style. The recording can be considered definitive.

The immensely underrated 1962 recording with Otmar Suitner conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden has to be one of my favorite recordings of all time. Another powerhouse recording, the playing throughout is extremely tight and the Danse Sacrale contains some of the best timpani playing ever recorded. When one thinks of the 1960's and the Rite of Spring, Stravinsky's 1960 recording and Pierre Boulez's popular 1969 account with the Cleveland Orchestra (during its peak days) springs to mind for some people. Out of all of Boulez's recordings, I like this version the best. Legend has it that this recording was done in one take. Listening to it, it's almost miraculous that the score was being played with precision never before heard. The Danse Sacrale in particular is shocking and performed with all the little things in the score brought out perfectly.

The honor of most brutal (in a good way) recording of the 60's, however, belongs to Seiji Ozawa, who laid it down in July 1968 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I read somewhere that Ozawa was quoted as saying about this recording, "I was young and full of energy and the Chicago Symphony was in its prime." One listen to this recording and it clearly shows; the no holds barred playing is extremely exciting and it's sure to get your heart pounding.

One might also find interesting a 1966 recording with Evgeny Svetlanov and USSR Symphony Orchestra (for really vintage Russian sound) and an extremely rare recording by Bohdan Wodiczko and Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra.


1970's

Stereo was now at the forefront here, and there began to be more exciting releases of Rite, the first of which from May 1974 is Sir Georg Solti's performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The CSO once again proves that this is a piece that they absolutely own (that brass).

A curious yet powerful recording is a 1972 recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra led by a 28 year old Michael Tilson Thomas. The recording is one of the most powerful ever captured. The tempos are right on the mark, and all the finer details of the score are brought out perfectly, featuring the BSO in its full power (also during its glory days).

Riccardo Muti's 1978 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra is of interest as well. The quality of the recording is sort of muffled, but the power-packing performance makes up for that. All three of these recordings are unique, because as i've mentioned, they capture the ensembles when they were at the height of their expressive power and characteristic and unique sounds.

Also worth mentioning is young Simon Rattle's first recording with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in 1977 (Rattle would go on to perform it many times throughout his career) and a dynamic and underrated recording with Eduardo Mata conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in 1978.

Herbert von Karajan's second attempt at recording the work came in 1977, still with the Berlin Philharmonic. It's really no better than the first time, the only difference being the better quality of the orchestra and recording equipment. Karajan's approach to the piece appears to be focused on romanticism and making it sound as pretty and refined as possible instead of the brutal savagery of the composition. Thus the result is not very satisfying in the long run.

And finally, Seiji Ozawa recorded it again with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1979, but it sounds a bit bored this time around and is not as powerful as the recording with the Chicago Symphony from the '60s.



1980's

The recording of the 80's has to be Antal Dorati's 1981 release with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It's interesting to compare this to his two 1950's recordings, both made with the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra). The 1953 recording is dynamic and brilliant, with a well paced Danse Sacrale while his 1959 remake (in amazing stereo) is virtuosic and exciting but the Danse Sacrale is taken too fast (as though Dorati was trying to meet a time limit). In 1981, Dorati took a step back and looked at the big picture. The result? A huge and thrilling account.

Leonard Bernstein recorded it for the last time in 1982 with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, but as also the case with Ozawa, this time it's not as exciting as his earlier recorded versions. The almost too relaxed playing from the Israel Philharmonic doesn't really help in this case either.

Also worth mentioning is Esa-Pekka Salonen's 1989 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra, which I consider one of the pinnacle recordings. Definitely one to get the pulse racing. If one wants a smoother Rite with more focus on the rhythm instead of the brutality, Simon Rattle's 1987 recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony is the way to go.

A curiosity from this decade is a 1988 recording with Yuri Temirkanov and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which is a rare example of an English orchestra sounding Russian.

Also worth checking out is Lorin Maazel's 1980 recording with the Cleveland Orchestra (to compare to Boulez's 1969 recording to hear how the sound of the orchestra has changed). Then compare that to Riccardo Chailly's white hot 1985 recording with the same orchestra. The 1984 recording with Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal is one of the clearest and most dynamic versions ever captured.


1990's

By this point, orchestras had been playing Rite for about 70 years so the tricky rhythms were not so tricky anymore, resulting in more precise and almost perfect renderings. Case in point: Pierre Boulez's 1991 recording with the Cleveland Orchestra which is just as precise as the 1969 recording, but with a glossier and shinier sounding orchestra. However, it's not as exciting as that one either.

The 1992 recording featuring James Levine leading the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is almost cinematic in the way it's mixed, but huge in sound. The overall idea however is well paced and worth listening to. A 1994 release by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchestra Berlin features a devastating bass drum and extremely heavy strings and brass which works perfectly for the primitive feel of the composition. Michael Tilson Thomas recorded it for the 2nd time with the San Francisco Symphony in 1996. This version is just as powerful as his 1972 recording and takes a similar extroverted approach. For the heaviest recording of the decade, Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra (now the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra) is the one to check out (for a real aggressive russian sound).


2000's

By the 2000's, we began to get less commercial releases and a lot more live performances. These live performances were recorded and released instead of doing a recording session in the studio. The most unique of these is a 2006 recording by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In the same vein as his 1989 Philharmonia release, the playing is on a whole new level. I would go as far as to say that it's one of the best recordings of all time. There also exists a thrilling live recording from 2003.

Also from the 2000's is a straightforward approach to the score with Sylvain Cambreling conducting the SWR Symphony Orchestra, Baden-Baden in 2006, an academic and dry approach from 2007 by Robert Craft and the Philharmonia Orchestra and a well paced and thrilling recording by Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic from 2008.


2010's

This decade mostly saw the release of several new commercial recordings and the re-release of classic releases aimed around the 100th anniversary of the work in 2013. The decade started off slow with several interesting releases including a March 2013 recording with Yannick Nézet-Séguin leading the Philadelphia Orchestra, a powerful 2010 recording with Gustavo Dudamel and Orquesta Juvenil Simón Bolívar, a enthralling french flavored 2011 take (but somewhat careful in execution) with Daniele Gatti and the Orchestre National de France and an underrated nature-focused 2010 recording by Yakov Kreizberg and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. Vasily Petrenko's 2016 recording with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is also extremely thrilling. Also from 2016 is a performance by Krzysztof Urbanski and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra that is almost too note perfect, and every single tempo in the score is followed down to a tee, making for a good reference recording. More risk taking in terms of interpretation is a 2012 account by Philippe Jordan and the orchestra of the national opera of Paris, and because it's a french orchestra it feels more authentically played.

A curiosity: we live in the 21st century which means we now have virtual orchestras that can be recreated from the comfort of our own homes. In 2019, I got the idea to see how a virtual orchestra (called Noteperfomer) could handle a large scale masterpiece like the Rite, and the results were very interesting.

And one more curiosity: there exists a recent recording of the composer Joe Hisaishi conducting the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra in a performance of the Rite from June 2019. By all accounts, it's absolutely fantastic and Hisaishi's control over the numerous elements of the score and orchestration is masterful. It's hard to believe that Hisaishi doesn't conduct full time!


Conclusion

There's always something new to discover in the score of The Rite of Spring, and even more when listening to how different conductors choose to approach this massive score. Whether it's the sound of the orchestra, the nationality of the orchestra or conductor, the conditions it was recorded under or even the decade it was recorded in - there's a story behind each and every recording that's worth looking into.

Try this for your favorite piece of music, no matter what it is, and I promise you'll rediscover the work anew.

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